Tchaikovsky In Church

Piano Essentials #2: Tchaikovsky In Church, Opus 39

This is the second in a series of free lessons, focusing on short piano pieces that beginning pianists can tackle.

“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy”. These are words of warning from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is probably a more valuable message now than in his times. There is a modern tendency to pit technique against creativity, as if these things are in conflict. It is true playing in a robotic, technically correct fashion without any feeling is obviously not ideal. However, without technique, you have nothing. Making music takes hard work, and a lot of it. The ancients spoke about the μουσικη τεχνη – the techne (craft) of the Muses. That this shares a root with the word “technology” is not a coincidence. Music, true music, not mere emotional effusion, imposes patterns on chaos and gives form.

That is not to say that Tchaikovsky is known for formalism or a lack of feeling. He lived his entire life (1840 – 1893 AD) within the 19th century, the century of Romanticism. This term refers to the broad cultural movement that emphasized emotion, individuality and, oddly enough, nationalism. Romantic music moved away from classical conventions and sought, in a strange way, to rediscover the medieval past that lay behind the watershed of the Renaissance and the cataclysm of the Enlightenment.

With Romanticism we see the rise of huge symphonies and concertos. The texture of the music is distinctively rich, colorful and expressive. The Romantic would eventually wear itself out – Nietzsche called it a “malevolent fairy” – and created a backlash: modernity. Tchaikovsky lives through the high noon of Romanticism. If you want to know what Romanticism sounds like, you can simply listen to his Piano Concerto or the inimitable Swan Lake.

Tchaikovsky: In Church

But there is another Tchaikovsky, to whom I’d like to introduce you through this post. This is the lesser known, and definitely not romantic, Tchaikovsky. In this post, we are going to listen to a child Tchaikovsky in church. In 1878 AD, Tchaikovsky decided to produce a volume of short pieces for children. He took his lead from Schumann, whose Album for the Young he admired. Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album is brimming with bright imagery: wooden soldiers, a tragic doll, birdsong, and the little gem we are looking at today: In Church. In this short piece, Tchaikovsky, like a true romantic, inhabits the subjective experience of another, in this case a child. From this vantage, he paints the child’s experience of church. For Tchaikovsky, as for another great composer we have discussed, being in church meant hearing the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the golden-mouth.

Quite unlike the fiery, sentimental imagination of a work like Romeo and Juliet, in this piece we find Tchaikovsky serene, resting on the sturdy foundations of ancient tradition. The piece is a condensed, poignant impression of a child hearing Slavonic chants, with their heavy, steady bass voices. To learn this piece, or to teach it to a child, focus on reading chords, rather than individual notes. In the opening bar, we have an E minor chord. It’s in root position, with the left hand taking the lower to keys and the right hand the upper. These four quavers must be both steady and dynamic, evoking both the sobriety and the intensity of chant.

The opening 8 bars of “In Church”, with chords indicated

In the second bar, we move to B Major (the dominant) with a perfect fifth in the base. This resolves back into the tonic. Then we move to a surprising D Major. As you work through the piece you will notice that certain figures and harmonic changes keep coming back. Noticing this will greatly increase the rate at which you learn and absorb the work. I’ve associated colors with each chord in the excerpt above. I sometimes color in my own practice scores. This might work for you. Whatever you do, you need to spend time discerning the patterns. This will inform how you play and it will give shape to your interpretation.

Here I talk about the piece and play it for you.

Tchaikovsky’s Sources

The composer’s religious convictions are a matter of some dispute. There is a cult-like modern tendency to seize on any expression of nuance or doubt in the private writings of great men in order to claim them for “atheism” (which doesn’t exist). What is beyond doubt is that Tchaikovsky drew from the rich soil of Russian Orthodox culture. Listen to this excerpt from his musical setting for the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom below. You will notice that it is repetitive but also expansive and varied. I am sure this is what Tchaikovsky intended to capture with his little piece in the Children’s Album.

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